Arif Mehmood, the photographer, speaks to us of our fragility, sometimes through his most abstract photograph, his sparsest landscape
The photographer is the invisible character beyond the edges of the frame.
ime has a sound. It is the sound of the bells of our childhood and of the family grandfather clock, a souvenir from the past. It is the sound of the mechanical watch, like a sultry rhythm at our sides. It is the sound of the camera’s shutter, clicking for an instant to capture time forever in its memory. As an echo of professional passions, photography can be appreciated as both art and technology, because it offers a way to present the most magical, the grandest of emotions, drawing one in like the beating of the heart or the ticking of the hand on a clock, causing one to forget technique and surrender oneself to a dream.
Photographers are part of history’s continuum. They lay their photographs beside existing images, waiting for the next generation to arrive. Their work is a fragment of an era – anecdotes in the grand narrative, instants in infinity. For us, as contemporaries, their stories may speak to us directly and emotionally – those faces may be familiar. But time can change our response. Distance can transform the subject into a symbol.
Photographer Arif Mehmood’s perspective is, ineluctably, a human one. He speaks to us of our fragility, sometimes through his most abstract photograph, his sparsest landscape. He speaks of passages, of the ephemeral, of traces left behind. One senses in his work a compulsive urge to bear witness. One also senses uncertainty, perhaps even fear. It’s a shard of life, captured with full awareness and responsibility. His photographs are haunted by a nagging fear: that their perspective might be flawed.
Memory is as fragile as a photograph; it is as thin as paper, as wispy as fibre. If you don’t photograph the instant, it disappears. If you freeze it in time, people think that it’s eternal. Memory is relative, a fallible, personal, and subjective thing. Time is the enemy that gnaws away at memory, turning photographs yellow, curling up their edges. Yet, languishing in a photo album or a cardboard hatbox, old pieces that tell the story of a family, unveil the face of an ancestor, or relate a past event, gradually acquire value with the passing of the years. Silently, they struggle against oblivion, resurrecting old emotions and provoking new ones. It was photographs of Vietnam that prompted Nachtwey to become a war photographer; it was the portraits from his childhood that inspired LaChapelle to create his extraordinary mise-en-scène.
In his latest offering, the book called, The Phase 8 Project, Mehmood has put together a long series of black and white and colour family pictures destined to survive the vicissitudes of time, when he shifted into a house in Defence VIII, Karachi, with his wife, and their three children, back in 2007 – the house that took nearly two years to complete. As he quotes, “These photographs are basically a diary of events that happened around us as a family. The images revolve around our house, my father’s house, and my mother-in-law’s apartment in Clifton. They also feature my grandchildren, my bed-ridden father who finally passed away in 2019.”
For Arif Mehmood, to be a photographer is to reveal oneself. His work in Phase 8 Project takes the form of a personal diary, stubbing his toe on every one of the stones he photographs. He shares the same obsession as a collector. Like one, he accumulates, until the images gathered together pile up, overflow, sometimes leaving the eyes of those who look at them with a sensation of inebriation, saturation, excess.
“When I look at a portrait of my late father, I try not to let myself be overwhelmed by the image of his face, by what is imposed in so concrete a fashion. Instead, I try to conjure up the vague image that I still have left of him – his smell, the way he moved, his smile.” Perhaps a photograph is just a point of departure. The rest belongs to the person looking at it, with his emotions, his story, his culture and his personal point of view. Photography is not objective merely because it represents a form of reality. All photographers have their own signature, their own perspective, their own interpretation.
The photographer is probably closer to the idea of death than other people. He retains instants of life and freezes them; he embalms his subjects by giving them a form of eternity, as if he were warding off the fatal moment when all things become absent. Whatever is shown in a photograph already belongs to the past. The portraits that he’s made, the conversations that he had had, are already behind him. What kind of imprints are left by these portraits and landscapes, these objects, forever silent? What emotions will they conjure up, like returning memories, like familiar tunes, or favourite perfumes? It is not up to Mehmood to ask these questions; it is up to the people who look at these photographs. Those who attempt to piece the story back together again.
Arif’s subjects are parts of a whole. He retells their stories, unearthing their origins, and by linking them to one another, makes them resonate across time.
Mehmood loves scenes from life. He likes to tell stories about people, their sense of humour, their paradoxes, their small pleasures, their failings and incongruities. He contents himself with being an observer. Phase 8 Project is the story of this visionary photographer who innocently focuses on apparently anodyne facts, on small details that, like the pieces in a Meccano set, build the edifice of our world: futile misunderstandings that create deep torments; short bursts of happiness that lengthen into great, enduring joy. Mehmood snaps pictures of children – their laughter, their screams, their scuffles.
The destinies of these men are linked. In this intimate relationship, Mehmood does not produce portraits but, rather, reveals the human drama that was to reach its apogée with his father’s demise. The world – the family home – that Mehmood photographs is a living theatre that combines the genres of reality and illusion. Mehmood’s photographs recount the fragility of life, a life as slim as a photograph, as flexible as a contortionist, as fluid as ink.
There are photographs that express a kind of impossibility – either he is too far away and his subjects struggle to fill the space as if the world were too big for them; or he is too close and his subjects burst out of the frame, as if they were severed, broken, rejected. Mehmood takes photographs through windows, bars, walls, and shadows. His subjects are never central, his compositions almost always jarring. He takes photos pressed up uncomfortably against walls, unable to move back any further.
Arif Mehmood has a calling. He has always been on a mission. What interests him most is authenticity. His portraits are realistic, touching. But he is never overtly sentimental. “It is important for me to be honest. The men, women and children I photograph are straightforward with me. I have to respect them for what they are. They’re fragile, delicate people. Why would I want to sentimentalise them? What I look for is compassion, not pity.” Mehmood does not sentimentalise, but he doesn’t filter reality either. He’s captured the ambivalence of human emotions, the humour and distress, the joy and the harshness, the sweetness and the pain, the beauty and the ugliness. He accepts his subjects as they are, in all the slowness of passing time, to the very edge of boredom. His portraits are as true as the stigmata-like lines on the subjects’ faces. They reveal their age, their wounds.
It is this sometimes-unseen beauty that has touched Arif Mehmood. And we are touched by that which resembles us. “I forget myself in my photographs; they’re a combination of what I bring to them and the contribution of the subject.” That’s his secret: no judgement, no sociology. With Phase 8 Project, we harvest a collective memory, a testimonial, a point of view.
The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad